George Clooney’s adaptation of Daniel James Brown’s biography, ‘The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics,’ is a study in contrast. Brown’s diligently researched and thrillingly told biography loses its texture and depth, succumbing to formulaic filmmaking. The film falls prey to the pitfalls of a tepid adaptation, trading the story’s nuance for Hollywood shorthand, effectively reducing it to a SparkNotes version of events. As a film, The Boys in the Boat overlooks its most crucial element: the individual boys in the boat. Presented as a singular unit, the boys emerge as a vague assortment of working-class underdogs, lacking distinct individual characterization. By glossing over the individual motivations of each boy, the film forfeits its inspirational potential, resulting in a glossy and paint-by-numbers recounting of events.
Deep in the throes of the Great Depression, University of Washington student Joe Rantz, portrayed by Callum Turner, resides in a dilapidated car within a desolate Seattle Hooverville. With unpaid tuition threatening his expulsion, Rantz scrambles for employment in the job-scarce climate, without the help of the father who abandoned him years ago. He joins the UW rowing team to fund his education, a serendipitous move that catapults him onto the global stage in the technically demanding world of competitive rowing. Under the guidance of the astute and exacting Coach Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton), Rantz and his eight-man junior varsity crew distinguish themselves on the water, triumphing over favored teams both domestically and internationally en route to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Clooney plays everything extremely safe, from Martin Ruhue’s predictably sepia-toned cinematography to the multiple forced romantic subplots, resulting in a film stylistically indistinguishable from many over the past century of filmmaking. From a directorial standpoint, there’s nothing risky or stylized, leaving this viewer unclear why Clooney chose to adapt this sensational true story. Adapting 418 pages into a slightly over two-hour film inherently risks losing detail and impact. This is exacerbated by Mark L. Smith’s (The Revenant) uninspired, bland screenplay, which dilutes Brown’s poetic and beautiful narrative into clichéd sports underdog tropes, stripping away the spark and soul of the original, breathtaking account.
Brown’s stature as one of his generation’s foremost literary documentarians, adept at transporting readers into the past with his rich prose and stunningly researched accounts, only underscores the film’s inability to achieve a similar effect. While Clooney stages competent sporting sequences, they pale in comparison to Fincher’s more dynamic and electrifying portrayal of competitive crew in The Social Network, rendering Clooney’s approach somewhat traditional, bland. Clooney’s frequent use of montage sequences as a shortcut to depict the team’s mastery in critical moments feels like a cheat to hustle along story resolution. This approach, once again, misses the trees for the forest—or in this case, the boys for the boat.
In many respects, The Boys in the Boat achieves its intended purpose, appealing to those who favor straightforward, competently crafted underdog sports stories. The film is definitely inoffensive, constructed so as to not spill the apple cart or challenge conventions in any way, however, there’s an inescapable sense that Clooney’s simplistic approach represents a missed opportunity. This story, rich in underdog American tenacity and the working class’s triumph over elitism and external threats, might have been better served as a limited series or by a director more attuned to its deeper themes
Alexandre Desplat’s throwback score, reminiscent of a bygone era, mirrors the film’s overall approach: mechanical, outdated, and laboriously guiding the audience’s emotions — as overworked as the titular boys in the boat. This over-exertion extends to the cast, who, despite their efforts, remain largely unremarkable. The characters, constrained by the script, fail to stand out or etch any discernible impression. As the lights came up, amidst fleeting moments of inspiration and sporadic engaging pacing, this viewer was predominantly left with a sense of disheartenment. Clooney’s The Boys in the Boat, rather than steering an epic tale through uncharted cinematic waters, settles for the safety of the familiar shore, missing the chance to truly captivate and inspire — a safe harbor indeed, but ultimately, a squandered opportunity to tell an extraordinary story with the vigor and depth it deserved.
CONCLUSION: In his attempt to adapt Daniel James Brown’s inspiring account of the 1936 University of Washington junior varsity rowing team, George Clooney fails to navigate the true depths of the story. He instead settles into the familiar currents of underdog sports cliches and old-timey filmmaking, missing the opportunity for novelty with every labored stroke.
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